Oregon tailback LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas are the two most prominent offensive stars in the Pac-12 not named Luck. But one question that the Ducks must answer early in their quest for a third consecutive conference championship is whether the offensive line will provide the time and space for the backfield to do what it has proven it can do.
“We lost three starters, three guys who had over 100 starts,” Oregon coach Chip Kelly said. “That’s a big concern.”
Center Jordan Holmes and left tackle Bo Thran both made all-conference. Along with right guard C.E. Kaiser, the three fifth-year seniors used their experience together and their maturity to overcome whatever deficiencies they had. That’s the trick in college football -- time can trump talent on an offensive line.
“All those guys led by example,” Kelly said. “Those kids were great students. Jordan Holmes was a great role model in every aspect. It was easy for Jordan Holmes to stand up and say, ‘This is how we do it,’ because he did it that way.”
That leaves fifth-year senior Mark Asper, a 25-year-old husband and father, fourth-year junior left guard Carson York, and, according to Kelly, a third returning starter in redshirt senior Darrion Weems. He started four games at left tackle and two at right tackle. Kelly pretty much believes that offensive lines, like basketball teams, should have a sixth man.
“Steve [Greatwood, the offensive line coach] would always rotate guys in with our offensive line,” Kelly said, “so even though we lost three, we got three starters coming back. Mathematically, people say how do you do that? Because those guys share snaps.”
The biggest hole may be at center, where redshirt sophomore Karrington Armstrong and redshirt freshman Hroniss Grasu split time. Grasu “is a kid we really like,” Kelly said. However, the 19-year-old, at 6-foot-3, 278 pounds, may be a milkshake or two short of being an every-down player.
At right guard likely will be veteran Ramsen Golpashin, “a fifth-year kid who has worked really hard for us and has put himself in a position where he’s going to play a little bit for us,” Kelly said. The leader for the sixth man is Ryan Clanton, “a JC kid who has shown up a little bit and is playing hard, doing things that, if we can keep him healthy, will put us in a good situation.”
The bottom line, however, is that if Oregon wants an offense as prolific as last year’s, the Ducks can’t afford early-season injuries up front. Every coach has to deal with replacing players. But Kelly has to replace them at the position that depends the most on experience.
“There are still going to be two or three kids in the offensive line that haven’t really played significant snaps for us,” he said. “They’re going to have to play significant snaps for us this year. We’ll see how they do.”